Franciscans from Five Continents Converge in Taizé for ‘Under-Ten’ Chapter

Stephen Mangione Friar News

American friars at the “Under-Ten” Chapter of Mats in Taizé, France. From left to right: Jeffery Jordan, Maxwell Klug of ABVM Province, General Minister Michael Perry, Erick López, and Stephen DeWitt.

More than 180 Franciscan friars representing 86 fraternities and 52 ethnic origins from five continents converged last month in Taizé, France, for the 5th “Under-Ten” Chapter of Mats, whose theme was “Friars in Dialogue.” The event was held for OFM friars worldwide who are professed nine years or less.

Among the participants at the July 7 to 14 event were four Holy Name Province members – Ross Chamberland, OFM, Stephen DeWitt, OFM, Jeffery Jordan, OFM, and Erick Lopez, OFM.

Jeffery served on the Under-Ten Chapter’s preparatory committee for the event held in Taizé – the small village in the historic central-eastern region of France that is home to an ecumenical, multinational monastic community. It was established in 1940 to provide sanctuary to war-time refugees. Consisting of more than 100 brothers of Catholic and Protestant traditions, it has become a faith-nourishing destination for thousands of youth pilgrims and members of religious orders.

The dozens of heritages represented at the Chapter illustrate the Order’s richness of diversity, serving as a unifying element among the fraternities and an opportunity for collaborative growth.

Each day began with Mass, followed by morning prayer, and then breakfast with several hundred youth pilgrims who flock to Taizé for spiritual enlightenment. The comprehensive weeklong itinerary included meetings, small-group discussion and biblical reflection, reports from the General Definitors of the respective conferences, and presentations and greetings by guest speakers – including Fr. Michael Perry, OFM, the Order’s General Minister; Br. Alois Löser, OFM, the prior of Taizé, and Fr. Cesare Vaiani, OFM, general secretary for formation and studies.

Some of the friars who participated in the Under Ten Chapter in France.  (Photo courtesy of Jeffery).

Moved to Tears
Evenings included community prayer and small group sessions in which friars shared ideas and their ministerial and life experiences back home. Some of the stories were awe-inspiring and elicited raw emotion, according to Ross, who said he was moved to tears by the accounts provided by a young friar from India.

“The situation for friars – and really for the nation as a whole – is more severe and dangerous than I, or anyone else, was aware,” said Ross, a native of Nashua, N.H., who spent the beginnings of his religious life with the Capuchin Franciscans before joining the Province, and who professed his solemn vows in August 2014 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City.

“I was excited to gather with the brothers. Having the opportunity to do this in France, where my family originated, made it even more special. I had never been to my native land before,” said Ross, who is assigned to St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., where he is assistant vice president for student engagement, and also serves as a vocation director in the state’s western tier.

“The brothers I met from other provinces around the world, and the opportunity to grow in fraternal relationship, was the most significant part of this experience,” added Ross, who was ordained into the priesthood on Jan. 3, 2015 at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Mass.

The diversity of the friars was also inspiring to Jeffrey, a native of Royston, Ga., who is assigned to the Shrine on Arch Street – and who served on the Under-Ten Chapter’s preparatory committee at the request of the Order’s secretary of formation and studies, whom he had met while studying in Rome.

“I was particularly struck by how well we collaborated as a group. Regardless of differences in language, culture and nationality, there was a true spirit of brotherhood,” said Jeffrey, who professed his solemn vows in 2014 and was ordained into the priesthood in Jan. 2015

The committee, which included friars from Congo, Croatia, Poland, India, Italy, Mexico, Philippines, Ukraine and the U.S., was led by the rector of Potificia Università Antonianum, where Jeffrey and other committee members resided while studying in Rome – an experience he said that helped him “come to know the international face” of the Franciscan Order.

Jeffrey was captivated by the simplicity of the Taizé experience. “I truly came to a deeper understanding of dialogue and what it means to be a ‘lesser brother’ by reaching out to those who are different from me in language, nationality and culture,” he said.

Ross Chamberland, wearing hat, during last month’s gathering (photo courtesy of Ross).

Powerful Encounters
The Chapter was divided into phases – Pre-Chapter, Chapter and Post-Chapter – and was structured according to the model of “see, judge and act.” The Order’s provinces and other entities were required to hold a Pre-Chapter event for all of their under-ten members some time between May 2018 and May 2019, providing friars with the opportunity to “see” the signs of dialogue in their own province, history and country.

After this preparatory exercise, each entity was then asked to select up to three delegates to attend the Chapter in Taizé, where the representative friars entered into deeper reflection, sharing and “judging” the points of Christian and Franciscan dialogue that emerged from the Pre-Chapter phase. The small group discussions with other under-ten friars from around the world were powerful encounters for Stephen, who professed his solemn vows in August 2011 at the church on 31st Street, and was ordained in May 2012 at St. Camillus in Silver Spring, Md.

“Although my group was mostly from Latin American countries and Portugal, I realized from the stories they shared that the challenges in their homelands are similar to what we face in the U.S. – things like the secularization of culture, political corruption, hopelessness, and loss of confidence in institutions,” said Stephen, who serves in Philadelphia, Pa., at St. Francis Inn – one of the Province’s outreach ministries to the hungry, homeless and marginalized.

The Buffalo, N.Y., native and graduate of St. Bonaventure University was also amazed at the fraternity of the event and the global reach of the Franciscans.

“In addition to the group discussions, meeting friars from Belgium, China, Italy and many other countries provided the international sense and character of the Order. Despite our cultural differences, we really are similar,” said Stephen, who had spent his yearlong internship before final profession in South America serving at Santa Ana Parish in Lima, Peru.

“There is real unity in being a Franciscan. That’s something we don’t always see, but it was quite evident at this Chapter because of the opportunity to spend time with friars from other parts of the world,” said Stephen, who added, “This unity is rooted in fidelity to the Gospel.”

Final Leg of Chapter
Between August and December 2019, the third and final step of the Under-Ten Chapter journey will be completed. Each province and entity is required to hold a Post-Chapter event with the participation of their under-ten friars, who will be asked to “act” by sharing reflection and dialogue, and devising concrete choices for implementation of what was celebrated in Taizé.

When the Order’s General Minister announced the Under-Ten Chapter in a letter to friars around the world with nine or fewer years of profession, he explained the intent of the event.

“Always listening to and following God’s will, our Seraphic Father St. Francis learned to be attuned to the expectations and hopes of the men of his time. The necessity of being ‘weavers’ of dialogue, bridge-builders and artisans of peace challenges each one of us as the life of our fraternities,” Fr. Michael said.

His letter went on to say, “[Although] united to Christ and His Word, our historical circumstances often leave us unable to be true ‘listeners’ – [which is] an ever-present challenge to realizing the vision of Francis, a man of ‘listening’ and ‘dialogue.’”

Fr. Michael said the Under-Ten Chapter offered a precious opportunity to reflect upon how Franciscans can integrate the dynamics of dialogue into their lives by giving witness to the gift they have received, and to testify to it through their own lives.

The previous Under-Ten Chapters were celebrated in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1995), Canindé, Brazil (2001), the Holy Land (2007), and Zapopan/Guadalajara, Mexico (2012).

— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.